Category Archives: shotgun shack

Tiny Living (and Shotgun Shacks)

Every now and then there’s a huge spike in traffic to my blog. In one case it was because @cblatts linked to a post of mine. But most of the time it’s not because people are actually looking for me. It’s something even better. They are searching for the term “shotgun shack.”

What’s a shotgun shack? Wikipedia gives this history and definition:

‘The shotgun house is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 12 feet (3.5 m) wide, with doors at each end. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), through the 1920s. Alternate names include shotgun shackshotgun hut, and shotgun cottage.’

Wikipedia says that the style can be traced from Africa to Haitian influences on home design in New Orleans, but that shotgun shacks are found all over the US. The homes became a symbol of poverty in the mid 1900s.

‘Shotgun houses consist of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways. The term “shotgun house”, which was in use by 1903 but became more common after about 1940, is often said to come from the saying that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and out the back door (since all the doors are on the same side of the house).[citation needed] Another reputed source of the name is that many were built out of crates, e.g. old shotgun-shell crates, and those made for other purposes. However, the name’s origin may actually reflect an African architectural heritage, perhaps being a corruption of a term such as to-gun, which means “place of assembly” in the Southern Dohomey Fon area.[2]

Midwestern rocker John Mellencamp’s song Pink Houses alludes to shotgun shacks. It’s a bit on the sarcastic side and makes commentary on rural hardships in the US: “Ain’t that America for you and me, ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby, ain’t that America, home of the free, yeah. Little pink houses for you and me….” And the killer line near the end:  “Cause it’s the simple man baby, pays the bills, the thrills, the pills that kill”

The Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime‘ directly references shotgun shacks and it’s where I took the name for my blog. The song captures a feeling I get often when moving around in the world of aid and development. I’ve found myself waking up in a shotgun shack one morning and then heading to the US to visit my parents in their middle class houses that feel absolutely palatial and luxurious in comparison. Or spending a couple of weeks eating rice and ‘leaves’ and an occasional egg in a rural community but being wined and dined at some donor meeting the following week.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?

But people searching for shotgun shack these days are not looking for me or for those songs for the most part.

Nope. They are looking for information on how to build their own shotgun shack either because they are unable to pay for their current home given the economic downturn in the US or they are making a clear decision to downsize, prioritize and live more simply. (Or a smart combination of both).

For example this story‘…Debra and her family lived in a nearly 2000 square foot home on an acre and a half of land. Then her husband lost his job and they began to work 4 jobs between them to pay the mortgage, until one day they remembered they had a choice.

Before having their son, Debra and her husband Gary had spent 9 years living in very tiny homes in South America. Living small hadn’t felt like a sacrifice, but a way to stay focused on what is important. They decided they wanted to get back to that.

They stopped working so hard, sold or gave away all of their extra stuff and began looking for the perfect tiny home.’

I discovered this weekend that ‘tiny homes’ is actually a whole movement, thanks to a tweet by @blakehounshell pointing to the Tiny Life: Tiny Houses, Tiny Living blog.

According to the site, Tiny Living encompasses:

  • Tiny Houses
  • Life Simplification
  • Environmental Consciousness
  • Self Sufficiency
  • Sound Fiscal Plans
  • Social Consciousness
A pretty cool movement. So if you’ve arrived here looking for me, great – read on! But if you arrived by accident looking for info on shotgun shacks or tiny houses, head over to Tiny Life and get your tiny living on.


Black Friday

I’d like to design a new snow globe to represent the US holiday season. Instead of the nice calm winter landscape, I’d put a scene from Black Friday inside.
Investopedia explains in their What is Black Friday post that

Black Friday is a popular label attached to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day in the US. This day marks the beginning of the busy shopping season during which most consumers typically start their Christmas/holiday shopping.  

…The use of black in this case alludes to profitability, which is traditionally noted in black ink (losses are noted in red). Traditionally, brick-and-mortar retailers see a surge in retail sales on this day as a result of the holiday shopping, putting their books “in the black”. 

Doorcrashers, special deals and heavy discounts on the most highly sought after holiday gifts are often offered by retailers in order to lure consumers into their stores in the hope that they will purchase other, higher margin goods. Some bargain hunting consumers have even been known to camp out overnight in order to secure a place in line at a favorite store. The contents of Black Friday advertisements are often so highly anticipated that retailers go to great lengths to ensure that they are not leaked out to the public beforehand.”


But Black Friday is more than that if you unpack it a bit.

Camping out overnight in order to buy something non-essential? Wow. But wait, there’s more. Check out The Ultimate Collection of Black Friday Fight Videos.

But what is the tone and the intent of this ultimate video collection effort? Like a day time talk show, the videos provide a platform to scorn and judge the idiots mobbing, scrambling and fighting for the latest Twilight videos or screaming at each other over who cut in line at Walmart. You get to feel really superior after just a few seconds of this. What dumbasses, you think. WTF? Glad that’s not me.

You might also start to feel disgusted, terribly sad and confused that this is what it’s come to. This is the epitome of current US culture. This is where all that “American greatness” has led. This is what Americans are supposed to do to “improve the economy.” And this is the path of “development” that the rest of the world is supposed to be emulating.

After watching a few of the ridiculous videos, you might start reading the comments below and feel disgusted by the tone and slurs of the commenters. Yay. More “American greatness” to emulate. The comments might make you feel somehow uncomfortable about your own reactions to the videos. Are you no better than the commenters? It’s complicated.

The Occupy Movement has its own event called Occupy Black Friday, formerly referred to as Buy Nothing Day. It encourages people to avoid retailers and buy local.

It reminds me of an article I read last year called What Food Says about Class in America.

In the article, Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington who “has spent his career showing that Americans’ food choices correlate to social class…argues that the most nutritious diet—lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, and grains—is beyond the reach of the poorest Americans, and it is economic elitism for nutritionists to uphold it as an ideal without broadly addressing issues of affordability. Lower-income families don’t subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education, as some have argued. And though many poor neighborhoods are, indeed, food deserts—meaning that the people who live there don’t have access to a well-stocked supermarket—many are not. Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they’re cheaper—and because they taste good. In a paper published last spring, Drewnowski showed how the prices of specific foods changed between 2004 and 2008 based on data from Seattle-area supermarkets. While food prices overall rose about 25 percent, the most nutritious foods (red peppers, raw oysters, spinach, mustard greens, romaine lettuce) rose 29 percent, while the least nutritious foods (white sugar, hard candy, jelly beans, and cola) rose just 16 percent.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.” He points to an article in The New York Times, written by Pollan, which describes a meal element by element, including “a basket of morels and porcini gathered near Mount Shasta.” “Pollan,” writes Drewnowski, “is drawing a picture of class privilege that is as acute as anything written by Edith Wharton or Henry James.”

There is certainly a difference between cheap food and cheap non-essential consumer items, but there’s also a correlation.

What does Black Friday (and its related elements) Say about Class in America?

Plateau: the self-loathing aid worker’s theme song

Joining in on Tales from the Hood’s Rock n Roll Marathon, I offer you Plateau, which could be the Self Loathing Aid Worker’s theme song.

Originally written by the Meat Puppets and covered on Nirvana’s Unplugged, this song was not written about aid and development at all of course, but I like metaphors, and Cobain perfectly captures the self-loathing aid worker’s angst.


Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belonged to strangers, some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills, and shake the many hands

Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
See a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

Finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you’ve done
The plateau’s clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work it was fun

Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
See a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

Many a hand began to scan around for the next plateau
Some say it was Greenland, and some say Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
But those were all just guesses, wouldn’t help you if they could


I dreamed last night that I was at a conference, presenting on a project. During the questions session, a woman stood up and recited a cryptic poem. The room waited for the punch line.

Here’s my point, the woman said, walking to the front of the room and writing on a chalkboard that had somehow appeared behind me. The arrogance of your approach cancels out the validity of your results. I was mortified.

Opening my email after waking from the dream, I found the continuation of a conversation I’d been having with N. Earlier in the month he had sent over a link to a blog post that included a reference to Ross Coggins’ poem The Development Set.

We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.

Read the whole poem if you haven’t yet. Realize it’s written in 1976, ask if anything has changed, and feel yourself get uncomfortable.

The poem is referred to in ‘ post* titled And then the dessert arrived: global health dichotomies, where Srinivas reflects on the official dinner at the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research organized at the Montreux Casino. The post made the rounds earlier this year.

A photo of the dying TB patient formed the background for 20 minutes of a talk on “Why Health Systems Fail” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer, to an audience obviously more interested in the wining and dining and, of course, the party that followed.

N. and I wondered in our email exchange if it is possible to opt out of these kinds of fancy conferences yet still remain in this line of work. Is there a middle ground? Or do you have to 1) swallow the dichotomies without flinching if you want to work in ‘development;’ 2) fully opt out of the system and create something new based on different values or 3) just get out of ‘development’ entirely and do something totally different? A classic dilemma on whether you can make change from within or without or even at all. Obviously it applies to many other fields aside from development work.

Is it important for personal and professional spheres to be consistent in the field of development work? N. notes “We typically excuse discrepancies in the US, well-paid aid “CEOs”, personally wasteful environment advocates, etc not seeing the former as appropriate domain for evaluating someone. But that’s silly, of course they are inevitably related.”

Was the woman in my dream right? Does the arrogance of the approach cancel out the validity of the results? At what point do you opt out entirely? Should you expect someone working in ‘development’ to hold a certain set of values and does that make their work more valid and successful in the long term? Or do the short-term results of ‘development projects’ make the processes and means of getting there unimportant?

What would happen if ‘austerity measures’ and ‘cutbacks’ were applied at the top? (er, hello #occupydevelopment?)

*Original article written along with Meena Daivadanam, Kristof Decoster and Asmat Malik appeared on Health Affairs Blog on February 9, 2011

“Unwatchable” …and pretty “Unhelpful”

I can kind of say I “know about” rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m not an expert on DRC by any means, but I’ve certainly read enough to know that it is happening.

Does “knowing about” rape in the DRC make me very sad? Yes.

Does “knowing about” it make me feel like the world is an evil place sometimes? Yes.

Does it blow my mind that humans endure or perpetrate this type of brutality? Yes.

Does it make me wonder what is underlying it, why it happens and what are all the complexities that surround it? Yes.

Does it make me wish that there were a way to help make it stop? Yes.

Has anyone offered a viable solution for someone like me to help stop it? Not really.

“Knowing about” and “caring about” don’t equal “having identified the right thing to do about.”

A new short film is out called “Unwatchable.” This film assumes that the reason people don’t do more about the situation in the DRC is that they don’t know about it or don’t empathize with it because it is happening to people in the DRC.

To remedy that, “Unwatchable” re-enacts a true story that happened to a family in the DRC, setting it the UK. The premise is that if we watch the same horrifying things happening to a white family in the UK, we will “know about” what is happening in the DRC, and then we will “care about” it enough to “do something about” it by signing a petition to “stop rape minerals”.

So, does watching a horrific short film about a white British family being brutalized help me empathize with families in the DRC? No.

Does it help me better understand the situation in the DRC? No.

Does it move me to do something about violence in the DRC? No.

Does it offer me a solution or a viable way to help stop violence in the DRC? Not really.

To start with, I actually can’t even remember who the organization is behind the film. All I remember is  some helicopters, a man with a bloody groin, lots of screaming and men in military gear, a teen-aged girl in a school uniform forced back on the kitchen table with flour all over her face being gang raped with a gun, and a little girl in white running in the fields with some flowers.

And another thing – no matter whether the people portrayed in the film were Brits or Congolese or from wherever, I would have been disturbed by the images. So if the goal of the film is horrifying the viewer by showing something that is “unwatchable,” then yes, goal achieved.

But am I better informed? Do I empathize now? Not really. Instead, I feel alienated, traumatized and I want to look away. I feel hopeless.

Will a lot of people watch the “unwatchable?” Probably. (Especially since it’s getting a lot of criticism right now.)

Does it make a solid connection between this violence and “rape minerals”? Not really.

No sane person would approve of rape as a weapon of war. But the difficult part is knowing what is the best way to end it, and knowing if there is really a way that someone like you or me can do anything about it.

Is legislation against “rape minerals” the best way? Who knows? There’s certainly enough questioning about the recent advocacy work and legislation that achieved a ban on them to make you wonder if banning is anything like a real solution.

The thing is, you can “know about” what is happening in the DRC and be “against rape” and still not be convinced that a petition or a boycott or Dodd Frank  is the best way to end it.

So does “Unwatchable” add anything relevant to the debate or identify real solutions? Not really.

In addition to being unwatchable, I found it to be pretty “Unhelpful.”

Doin Surveyz…

Doin Surveyz.... Photo courtesy of

The aid and development blogosphere has grown over the past few years. So…  it’s time to find out a little bit more about who is reading this type of blog and what readers are interested in.

A number of bloggers have gotten together to create a joint survey of readers: please take it here. It’s short and anonymous.

After you take the survey, please tweet it, blog it, or otherwise share it with others who read aid and development blogs.

Much appreciated!

(Go check out for a few laughs.)

Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers

Back in February, Kumarian Press sent me a review copy of “Inside the Every Day Lives of Aid Workers.” I was pretty eager to get it, since J. (Tales from the Hood) and I had recently launched “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like  (SEAWL)” and this seemed like a good complement to what we were doing.

I imagined reading about real-live aid workers and the challenges they face in their work. Maybe some studies about their lives complete with trends on income disparities or alcoholism or going native or something. Possibly some interesting narratives or stories or ethical questions they face that could spark reflection and discussion…

Well, seven months later, I had only struggled through the first 4 chapters of the book.

Then J. posted his review so, not to be outdone or shown up as the half-assed member of the SEAWL partnership, I decided I must plow through to the end, even if it meant skimming instead of really reading.

And… I’m actually glad I did because the most applicable and digestible information was found in the second half of the book.

Chapter 5 (Orienting Guesthood in the Mennonite Central Committee, Indonesia) was a good read (though in some places it felt like the author held the MCC in contempt for their beliefs). Perhaps I liked the chapter because I have known several people working with the MCC or basing their work on similar worldviews, yet I had no underlying idea of the concepts their philosophy is based on. I’m now wondering if Greg Mortenson stole the concept for 3 Cups of Tea from the Mennonites.

Chapter 6 (Everywhere and Everthrough, Rethniking Aidland by Keith Brown) traces the “birth, implementation and afterlife” of a USAID funded civil society project. It explores “AID politics” quite nicely, though the writing was a bit convoluted. I liked the concept of  “adding actuality to a virtual program,” eg., that moment when a project designed in DC without local input and aimed at fulfilling political motives of the US Government gets funded and needs to be implemented locally in a complex situation that doesn’t resemble the imaginations of those who designed the project. Unfortunately, I got to the end of the chapter feeling like “OK, we know this, and…?”

Chapter 7 (Anybody at Home? The inhabitants of Aidland by Anne-Meike Fechter) was by far my favorite and Chapter 8 a close second. In 7, the author explains the concept of “Aidland” as a metaphor for the particular traits and characteristics of the development sector… “a complex, almost self-contained web of institutions, people , and activities, with sets of attitudes, discourses, and practices of its own”. She then pulls in a cross-section of ‘types’ of aid workers, discusses what makes them “inhabitants of Aidland” and emphasizes the complexity and variety of people who identify as “aid workers”. The point is made then that in order to identify trends in aid and development, it is useful to talk to and study actual aid workers, and that activity at the margins of “Aidland” can give rise to interesting speculations on where the field is headed. 

Chapter 8 (Dealing with Danger by Silke Roth) is an analysis of the security risks that different aid workers face and their individual justifications for taking on difficult and dangerous aid work. I see many of my friends and acquaintances reflected in the profiles of this chapter, so it resonated.

Chapter 9 (by Heather Hindman) goes into the trend of subcontracting and the “Hollowing out of Aidland;'” starting off with current corporate sector buzzwords like outsourcing, off shoring, subcontracting, neoliberalism, streamlining, best practices, and efficiency and their impact on how aid is done and ‘delivered,’ and how these changes alienate the aid worker and produce a rift between those who do the work of development and the product of their labors. The chapter comes from a human resources angle, and looks at aid workers as primarily ‘workers’. It also provides a fascinating look at how subcontracting is changing not only development, but also families, relationships and the ‘expatriate way of life’.

So it was worth getting through to the end.

Check J’s review for some excellent points and insights on the book. Though I’m guessing maybe he’d had enough by Chapter 4 and called it quits. 🙂

Teen Angst

I don’t live in London, so I’m not in a position to understand the context of the London Riots like those in the thick of things can. Like many though, I’m watching and thinking about why they happened now, what caused them, how they are similar or different from other recent (and future) ‘uprisings’ of youth, and what they mean in the larger scheme of things.

Sometimes you can’t capture a reason with words alone, and maybe there is no reasonable or tangible explanation for what is happening. But a few songs come to mind that do a good job of conveying that feeling of (sometimes pointless) teen angst…. I imagine many other songs could be added. (Send links and lyrics and I’ll grow the playlist….)

Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols, 1976

“I am an anti-christ
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want but
I know how to get it
I wanna destroy the passer by cos I

I wanna BE anarchy!

Anarchy for the U.K it’s coming sometime and maybe

I give a wrong time stop a traffic line
your future dream is a shopping scheme

cos I, I wanna BE anarchy!
In the city

How many ways to get what you want
I use the best I use the rest
I use the enemy
I use anarchy cos I wanna be anarchy.”

London Calling by the Clash, 1977

“London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared, and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls
London calling, now don’t look to us
Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain’t got no swing
‘Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing”

Teenage Riot by Sonic Youth, 1988

“It better work out

I hope it works out my way
‘Cause it’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head
Takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now”

Smells like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, 1991

“With the lights out

It’s less dangerous

Here we are now

Entertain us”

Geezers Need Excitement by the Streets, 2002

“Geezerz need excitement
If their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
Common sense simple common sense
Geezerz need excitement
if their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
Common sense simple common sense”

World Town by M.I.A. 2007

“Yo dont be calling me desperate
When i’m knocking on the door
Every wall you build i’ll knock it down to the floor
See me see me bubbling quietly
See me see me acting like you ain’t met me
See me see me bubbling quietly
See me see me acting like you ain’t met me

Hands up
Guns out
Represent the world town”

Killing in the Name by Rage against the Machine, 1993

“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”


We’re not gonna Take It by Twisted Sister, 1984 (suggested by @talesfromthhood)

“We’re not gonna take it

No, we’re not gonna take it

We’re not gonna take it anymore”

Fight for your Right to Party by the Beastie Boys, 1986 (suggested by @talesfromthhood)

“You gotta fight for your right to party”

Party for your Right to Fight by Public Enemy, 1988

“Power, equality
And we’re out to get it
I know some of you ain’t wid it
This party started right in ’66
With a pro-Black radical mix
Then at the hour of twelve
Some force cut the power
And emerged from hell
It was your so called government
That made this occur
Like the grafted devils they were”

I Predict a Riot by Kaiser Chiefs, 2004 (suggested by @catg89)

“I predict a riot, I predict a riot

I predict a riot, I predict a riot

I tried to get to my taxi

A man in a tracksuit attacked me

He said that he saw it before me

Wants to get things a bit gory

Girls scrabble around with no clothes on

To borrow a pound for a condom

If it wasn’t for chip fat, they’d be frozen

They’re not very sensible”

Panic by the Smiths, 1986 (suggested by @ithorpe)

“Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again ?
The Leeds side-streets that you slip down
I wonder to myself
Hopes may rise on the Grasmere
But Honey Pie, you’re not safe here
So you run down
To the safety of the town
But there’s Panic on the streets of Carlisle
Dublin, Dundee, Humberside
I wonder to myself

Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play

White Man in Hammersmith Palais by the Clash, 1977 (suggested by @paulclammer)

“White youth, black youth

Better find another solution

Why not phone up Robin Hood

and ask him for some wealth distribution.”

April 26, 1992 by Sublime, 1996 (suggested by @michaelkbusch)

“April 26th, 1992,
there was a riot on the streets,
tell me where were you?
You were sittin’ home watchin’ your TV,
while I was paticipatin’ in some anarchy.

First spot we hit it was my liqour store.
I finally got all that alcohol I can’t afford.
With red lights flashin’ time to retire,
And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire.

Next stop we hit it was the music shop,
It only took one brick to make that window drop.
Finally we got our own p.a.
Where do you think I got this guitar that you’re hearing today?

Never doin no time

When we returned to the pad to unload everything,
It dawned on me that I need new home furnishings.
So once again we filled the van until it was full,
since that day my livin’ room’s been more comfortable.

Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here,
It’s getting harder and harder and harder each and every year.

Some kids went in a store with their mother,
I saw her when she came out she was gettin some pampers.

They said it was for the black man,
they said it was for the mexican,
and not for the white man.

But if you look at the streets it wasn’t about Rodney King,
It’s bout this fucked up situation and these fucked up police.
It’s about coming up and staying on top
and screamin’ 187 on a mother fuckin’ cop.”

Burning down the House by the Talking Heads, 1983 (suggested by @viewfromthecave)

“Watch out, you might get what you’re after

Cool babies, strange but not a stranger

I’m an ordinary guy

Burning down the house”

Baba O Riley by the Who, 1971 (suggested by @viewfromthecave)

“Don’t cry
Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland…

(they’re all wasted!)”

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Bauhuas, 1982 (suggested by @meowtree)

“All we ever wanted was everything

All we ever got was cold.

Get up, eat jelly, sandwich bars and barbed wire

Squash every week into a day.

The sound of the drum is calling

The sound of the drum has called

Flash of youth shoot out of darkness

Factory town”

Fire in the Booth by Akala, 2005 (suggested by @telamigo)

“One too many man you know get cut up
One too many man that could’ve been doctors
End up spending their whole life boxed up
You learn, if you study
Its all set out just to make them money
No cover, it’s all about getting poor people to fight with one another
So its logical that us killing our brothers,
Dissin’ our mothers
Is right in line with the dominant philosophy of our time
But time is a cycle, not a line
Comes back around you regain your mind
You be ready for the energy I channel in my rhymes
Remedy the pedigree, the jeopardy of mine
When the world’s this f***ed up, lethargy’s a crime
We can all fight with our brothers over crumbs,
Far harder to fight the one who makes guns
We can all talk sh** and get two dollars
Far harder to be the one who seeks knowledge
If we understood economics
We’d know money’s nothin’
Think nothing of it…”
Jungle by Professor Green ft Maverick Sabre, 2010 (suggested by @telamigo)
“I see no point in living life that right, so I just take what I can find
I see no point in living life that right, when you’re out here in this jungle
It’s wild round ‘ere, you don’t wanna spend a night round ‘ere
When you’re out here in this jungle, ain’t nothing nice round ‘ere
trouble’s what you find round ‘ere….
It’s blitz amidst the strife here
got kids with sticks and knives here
It’s hype here, we know no different prick
It’s just life here
Life from young the way we know from what we’re shown
Stacked trapped in flats where our front doors don’t face the road
God CID spinning round in cars
Shifting criminals at large
it’s hard not to think the bits are just a bing without the bars….”
21st Century Breakdown by Green Day, 2009 (suggested by @mforstater)
“… My generation is zero
I never made it
As a working class hero
21st Century Breakdown
I once was lost but never was found
I think I am losing
What’s left of my mind
To the 20th century deadline”
Enter Shikari by Juggernauts, 2009 (suggested by @mforstater)

“…Now don’t get me wrong I love what you done with the place
I just wish we had a chance to help build it
Instead of just moving into this home of disrepair
And expect it to work, prosper and then share
Constantly relying on consuming to feel content
But only because we lost touch with this home that we’ve spent
Trillions of dollars tainting for our wants and not our needs
And now we’re growing tired of planting bleary-eyed seeds

….. And I know that we’ve still got time
But I do not think we’re invincible
And I’m thinking that its a sign
Deep breaths, clentched fists,
Here comes another jug-ger-naut!

The idea of community
Will be something displayed in a museum”


Teenage Angst by Placebo, 1996  (suggested by @manucartoons)
“Since I was born I started to decay.
Now nothing ever ever goes my wayOne fluid gesture, like stepping back in time.
Trapped in amber, petrified.
And still not satisfiedAirs and social graces, elocution so divine.
I’ll stick to my needle, and my favourite waste of time,
both spineless and sublime.”Since I was born I started to decay.
Now nothing ever – ever goes my way.
Invincible by Pat Benetar, 1985 (suggested by Leila)
“This shattered dream you cannot justify.
We’re gonna scream until we’re satisfied.
What are we running for ? We’ve got the right to be angry.
What are we running for when there’s nowhere we can run to anymore ?
We can’t afford to be innocent
stand up and face the enemy.
It’s a do or die situation – we will be invincible.
And with the power of conviction there is no sacrifice.
It’s a do or die situation – we will be invincible.Won’t anybody help us ?
What are we running for when there’s nowhere”.

Violent Crimein by Mayhem N.O.D.B., 2008 (suggested by Harle)

(couldn’t find any lyrics for it….)


Several years ago I was sent by the INGO where I worked to a nearby country to accompany and translate for a photographer and a reporter who were touring a post-conflict zone. They were going to take photos and write stories about the situation in the country and the work we were doing to address the impact of the situation on the most vulnerable communities. A driver and someone from a local NGO counterpart accompanied us.

There were many indigenous groups in the zone that we visited. It was my first experience at translating in a multi-lingual rather than bi-lingual setting. The journalists would ask a question in English. I’d put it into the official language of the country. A man from the indigenous group would make sure he understood what I was saying, and then he’d turn around to the group of men that had gathered to meet with us and relay the question or comment to them. They would have a long discussion, or sometimes  what seemed like an animated argument, and come to a consensus on their answer. Then he would turn around to me, give me the group’s answer, and I’d put it into English for the 2 journalists. Sometimes the two journalists would clarify to each other in their native language, which I didn’t speak.

The group that we visited in one particular community had been forced off their land by the government who declared the area they had always inhabited an ecological reserve. They believed this was a political move rather than any real government concern for the delicate ecology of their homeland. They felt the government wanted to weaken them by removing them from their land and decimating their culture and their capacity to resist. This was part of the government’s approach to dealing with ‘lack of development’ in the country.

The photographer took lots of pictures. The reporter was thrilled with the story. The local counterpart representative looked happy. He was very supportive of our visit. Certainly it was worthwhile if it meant some more funding for his local NGO. I was excited to be in communities I’d never normally get to spend time in, plus, the journalists were really fun to hang out with. A great visit for everyone involved…. right?

As we prepared to say our goodbyes to this particular community, the headman said to us. “There is one more thing before you go.

Yes? yes?” said the reporter, adrenaline surging at the fascinating stories she would write about the lives of indigenous peoples and their romantic struggle for survival. “Tell us,” said the photographer, spirits high, imagining the colorful photos he’d print of the people in native dress against the pristine natural background, the bare-breasted women with babies tied on their backs, washing in the stream.

“Don’t take our photos and our stories with you if you are not going to help us.”

We realized we might be there a bit longer, explaining ourselves.

The photographer promised heartily that he’d send copies of his photographs. The journalist, instinctively holding her hand over her heart, promised she would send a copy of any articles that were written. I translated the promises, and made my own promise to send any articles and photos to the local counterpart, who promised to get them to the community.

They didn’t look satisfied, so now it was us conferring amongst ourselves to come up with a response. We agreed that I should carefully tell the headman that we couldn’t help them directly. I should explain to them the concept of ‘advocacy’, and tell them how the work we were doing would help ‘raise awareness’ about their situation and pressure their government so that they would not be moved off their land.  I should help them understand that the local counterpart, the journalists, my organization and I were all ‘advocates’ for them.

They understood all those ideas just fine, but shrugged, not so satisfied. We felt uncomfortable. We didn’t have anything concrete to offer. And anyway, we didn’t see ourselves as ‘whites in shining armor,’ coming to save them. No no, we were beyond that, better than that. We had progressed beyond all those other organizations. We were ‘changing policies’ not ‘giving hand outs’ and through our work we would be ‘catalyzing sustainable and lasting changes‘ in people’s lives. At least that was what we wanted to believe.

But what we were really doing was taking their story to use as a way to shine a light on our story about how any funds donated to us would empower them (and other beautiful, brown and colorfully dressed people like them) to save themselves. We really did believe that we could make a difference with our newspaper articles, our photos and our advocacy. Truth was that it was still more about us and our organization than it was about them.

“People come and take our stories, and they never come back, and our situation doesn’t change,” they said. “We hope that you will be different.”

Sure, we wanted to be different, but I’m pretty sure that the story that the reporter wrote and the pictures that the photographer took  didn’t help this particular community at all. I never heard anything else about them after our visit, and I’m fairly sure they never heard anything about the 3 of us. Though I bet the next few times they saw the local counterpart, they asked.

The journalists got some fantastic photos and nice stories about the organization I worked with placed in the most popular newspaper in their home country. We all believed those stories were helping a larger cause somehow, and therefore that it was a good thing. Who knows, maybe we did make some kind of small difference in the big scheme of things.

Several months after our visit, I got a press clipping in a language I didn’t speak, which I sent off by post, not really knowing if the community would ever get it. We fulfilled our promises in deed, but that visit has always stayed with me.

“We hope that you will be different.”

We were not.

Aid: love it or leave it?

Aid - love it or leave it? (Photo taken from - use of photo is not an endorsement of the band/message/song)

Last week, Tom Paulson guest posted for Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL). He didn’t realize he was guest posting, because he wrote the post for Humanosphere, but his post could easily be re-written as SEAWL “#75: Self-Loathing”.

In his post, Paulson identifies ‘A serious problem of self-loathing within the aid and development community’ along with ‘pathological self-deprecation’ and a tendency towards ‘nose-cutting and face-spiting’ (not necessarily in that order).

He uses 2 posts to illustrate his point.

1) Aid Cannot and Will Not Fix Anything by Tales from the Hood, and

2) It’s a Better Life Without Oxfam: the video, which Duncan Green (Oxfam GB’s head of research) blogged about and View from the Cave re-blogged.

Paulson writes that ‘Given the level of ignorance and even hostility that exists in this country toward spending much on foreign aid and development, I think the main challenge for this [the aid] community is make the case for the value of aid and international development. Saying “aid cannot and will not fix anything” is a dangerous soundbite in this political and cultural environment, I think.’

I kind of see his point, and I like Paulson’s writing in general, but this question reminds me a bit of the old “USA Love It or Leave It” mantra.

Most anyone who works in the aid sector knows that aid has serious problems. Some say it’s irreparably broken and move on to a different career or start their own initiative that they think will get beyond the problems of ‘aid’. The general public knows that there are problems in the aid sector as well. It’s a bit hard to hide. And anyway, part of the problem with aid is that for years, its marketers and promoters have been promising something that aid can’t deliver and creating a skewed vision of the world.

I suspect that those who stick around in the aid sector 1) believe aid does some good and that it can be fixed (see many of Owen Barder’s posts), 2) labor on seeing the small bits of good that they or their team or their project or program can accomplish within a system they know is broken (see Spitting into the Wind), 3) are motivated by their paycheck (see Hardship Living) or other perks (like feeling hardcore) or 4) some combination of the above.

Aid is no different from any other large system or industry. It shouldn’t be held as sacred and beyond critique, including by those who know it well and can identify the fine points and details of what is wrong, and perhaps especially by them.

Would Paulson say that we shouldn’t criticize our political or religious systems because it might put people off? Or that we are self-loathing if we talk about what ails those systems and needs to be fixed?